Three Ways of Looking at a Colleague: Protocols for Peer Observation

Simon Hole, a long-time Essential School teacher who teaches fourth grade in Narragansett, R.I., has developed guidelines for six ways for teachers to conduct peer observations in the classroom. Three of them follow in slightly condensed form:

Protocol # 1: Observer as Video Camera

This protocol aims to develop observational reliability between the observer and the observed. No two people ob-serving the same event will see the same thing, it assumes, since the perceptions and prior experiences of each act as a filter. The protocol allows the observed and the observer to discover what the other “sees” during the observation, and to help each learn to see as much as possible.

Pre-Observation Conference: The person to be observed outlines what will be occurring during the observation.

Observation: To the greatest extent possible the observer maintains a “video camera” stance, scripting and making note of as many events as possible. Take care not to attempt to interpret or question during the observation.

Debriefing: In the first part of the debriefing, the observer reconstructs the observation from her notes. The observed listens carefully, taking note of any details that escaped her own notice and jotting down anything remembered that the observer does not mention. In the second phase of the debriefing the observed speaks, naming those details of which she was not aware and adding her own.

Note: Both parties should refrain from interpretation and value judgments. “The student was bored” is interpretation; “the student doodled, yawned, and gazed out the window” is observation. “That was a great lesson” is a value judgment.


Protocol # 2: Focus Point

This protocol aims to help deepen the observee’s understanding of his practice. The observer notes those events that relate to a particular aspect of the observee’s practice and then actively listens as the observee attempts to make sense of those events.

Pre-Observation Conference: In addition to outlining what will be occurring during the observation, the person to be observed asks the observer to focus on a particular aspect of his practice. Example: “Would you look at how I respond to student questions.”

Observation: The observer focuses on the specific aspect of practice raised during the pre-observation conference. Field notes include descriptions of “focus” events and related questions that the observer may wish to raise during the debriefing. (The observer may also note events and questions outside the focus of the observation, but these may or may not be discussed during the debriefing.)

Debriefing: The observer begins by restating the focus and asking the observee to share her thoughts. Example: “How do you feel about the lesson? What did you notice about how you responded to student questions?” As the observee talks, the observer may 1) supply specific events that either corroborate or contrast with the observee’s statements, 2) summarize what the observee is saying, 3) ask clarifying questions, or 4) raise questions related to the focus that she noted during the observation.

Note: Events and questions not directly related to the focus of the observation should only be raised after asking for the permission of the observee. Unless specifically invited to do so, the observer should refrain from stating her ideas and perspective on the issues.

Protocol # 3: Interesting Moments

This protocol assumes that the observer and the observed will work together to create some new knowledge; they are in it together. The observation is a shared experience, and so is the debriefing. After listening to such a debriefing, one outsider noted its seamless quality: “The two of you were discovering something about the events you had seen.”

Pre-Observation Conference: Because this form of observation is more open-ended, it is not strictly necessary to have a pre-conference, although it may help to orient the observer as to what will be happening.

Observation: The observer maintains an open field of vision, noting anything that strikes her as particularly interesting or that may lead to “deep” questions.

Debriefing: Either participant begins by raising a point of interest, stating what occurred as clearly and fully as possible. Both participants talk about the incident, attempting to sort out “what was going on there.” As the ideas build, both are responsible for keeping the conversation on track while maintaining the flexibility necessary to create new understandings. The “consultancy” protocol could be used. (See Horace 13:2, November 1996)

Note: This protocol requires a high level of trust between the two participants. They must trust that the debriefing is not about evaluation, that each will listen and respond thoughtfully to the other, and that whatever knowledge they create will be shared knowledge.

These protocols were developed with additions and adaptations from Carrie Brennan (Catalina Foothills High School, Tucson, Arizona), John D’Anieri (Freeport High School, Freeport, Maine), and John Newlin (Southern Maine Partnership). Three additional protocols–”Teaming, ” “Self-Observation, ” and “Silent Debriefing”–can be obtained from Simon Hole at

Inquiry Cultures and the Larger System

Cultures of inquiry make very different demands upon the larger system and on outsiders than do less dynamic organizational types, points out John Watkins, whose Amherst, Massachusetts firm Inquiry and Learning for Change ( coaches and analyzes school change. For example, he observed in a recent paper:

A culture of inquiry is an “open system, ” continually examining its own purposes as well as the ways it reaches those purposes. New and even conflicting ideas can come into the system at any time to influence what happens. The school’s vision guides its work, but in a dynamic tension with its actions, each tested against the other in an ongoing inquiry into the current state of affairs. To encourage this, the larger system must not impose too rigid rules or high stakes.

Cultures of inquiry create multiple, flexible structures as they need them–for example, multi-age groups, multiple forms of assessments, or various ways for school and families to interact–and they continually test those structures against the vision. Rather than asking how to make a current structure more efficient or how to put a new one into practice, inquiry cultures ask what problems the old structures solved, what values they reflected, whose interests they served, what structures might be more consistent with the values and beliefs of the school’s vision, and what people need to know to enact those. An inflexible, prescriptive bureaucratic system does not work well with this; instead, the larger system also must be able to purposefully reconfigure itself as necessary.

Cultures of inquiry depend on adults and students collaborating in teams and networks, and they set up critically reflective processes and norms that guide them. These structures–grade-level or cross-grade teams, critical friends groups, school-university teams, leadership teams–include professional interactions among teachers, but also involve other people important to the work, inside or outside the school and community. To support this characteristic, the larger system, too, must replace its hierarchy with multiple networks of this sort.

Cultures of inquiry have sophisticated structures, settings, processes, and norms that support problem-setting, problem-exploring, problem-solving, and inquiry. They have little patience for categorical, prescriptive approaches; for traditional ways of choosing among innovations to implement; or for “experts.” From the larger system they seek critical friendships with “outsiders” who are themselves part of learning systems, and who increasingly act also as insiders.

Cultures of inquiry create a risk-taking, experimental environment that encourages members to develop, reflect on, and modify structures and processes. The larger system must not penalize such risk-taking by creating a high-stakes environment or imposing highly structured or constrained settings for change. Instead, it should support, encourage, and reward open-ended, creative work.

Cultures of inquiry are highly strategic and purposeful about seeking and using outside information, resources, expertise, and collaborations. Ideas, information, and people constantly move across their boundaries with the “outside.” The larger system must provide access to information and support, networks for sharing and building knowledge, and non-hierarchical, ongoing partnerships, interactions, and critical friendships.

Leadership in a culture of inquiry is shared and inclusive, a source of and model for asking the hard questions that guide all work. The larger system must thus see all aspects of the system as settings for leadership development and communities of inquirers–non-bureaucratic and non-hierarchical, it should support, facilitate, and provide resources for local decision-making and leadership.